Thu, 05/01/2008 - 13:55

Or how the Balkan tinderbox has been transforming itself into a Salade Macedoine

border balkans.jpg

When it comes to “Macedonia,” it's hard for most expats in this region to understand just why this name is so divisive. As you must be aware, the name is the centre of a bitter dispute between Greece and its northern neighbour calling itself the Republic of Macedonia. The Macedonia name issue is one of those highly emotional subjects that foreigners in Greece avoid when possible - but that's getting harder to do.

After 15 years of negotiations, talks have intensified and are now affecting NATO and the EU. Greece has already vetoed the Macedonian nation's entry into NATO and it vows it will do the same with the EU, unless an agreement on the “M” word is reached.

Greece, whose most-northerly region is called Macedonia, takes issue with the former Yugoslav republic over what it sees as the monopolisation of the historic name. It insists on a name that would differentiate it from Greek Macedonia.

The list of Greek complaints is lengthy - some fear territorial claims, others are angry over the link to Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, which many Greeks consider their own. But their northern neighbour also has its arguments, not least that it has already been recognised as the Republic of Macedonia by 120 nations.

The conflict is somewhat expected, if not fully understood. The late Henry R. Wilkinson, author of Maps and Politics: A Review of the Ethnographic Cartography of Macedonia, wrote in his 1951 book that the region “defies definition”. The geographic outline of “Greater Macedonia” has changed numerous times over its recorded history dating back to about 500-400 BC.

Wilkinson said the current geographic region of Macedonia was defined in 1899 by a Greek cartographer and took hold a few years later.

“History no more sets its seal upon the boundaries of Macedonia than does physical geography,” Wilkinson wrote. “This region is distinctive not on account of any physical unity or common political experiences, but rather on account of the complexity of the ethnic structure of its population.”

The region is or has been home to Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Walachians, Serbs, Jews, Turks and many others. According to a paper by Greek historian Evangelos Kofos, the Macedonia geographic region is now 51 percent Greek territory and 38.5 percent part former Yugoslav republic. Maps show the rest lies in modern-day Bulgaria, as well as small areas in Serbia and Albania.

The name dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav Macedonia came under the spotlight when the latter declared independence in 1991. Demonstrators filled the streets of both Thessaloniki and Skopje at the time - and again earlier this year as negotiations heated up.

We have three different points of view that may shed some light on the conflict and the nationalist emotions behind it.


For historian Basil C. Gounaris, associate professor in the Department of History and Archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece will never compromise on the name issue because the nation's history in Macedonia is a cornerstone of Greek nationhood.

Historian Basil Gounaris of the Aristotle University

Historian Basil Gounaris of the Aristotle University

Shortly after Bulgaria gained independence in 1878, Greece annexed Thessaly, making the Macedonian area the neighbouring region. Macedonia became a key area for Greece because it was the corridor to Constantinople and gave access to the rest of Europe, according to Gounaris.

“They couldn't afford losing Macedonia because that would have been the end of the idea of Greek nation-state. Greece would suffocate,” says Gounaris, who is also the director of the research department at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. “Thus Macedonia became a symbol of Greek revival.”

Gounaris asserts that at the same time, and just as importantly, Greek hatred of Bulgaria grew. From the moment Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, it was promised - and believed -that Greater Macedonia, to a large extent a Slav-speaking region, would be incorporated into Bulgaria.

“After 1885, Bulgaria became the enemy of the Greeks and in fact it's one of the reasons behind Greece becoming a proper nation. Everyone realised they had a real enemy, there was an external threat and that they had to fight this enemy,” Gounaris adds.

Thousands of Greeks protest against the former Yugoslav republic “usurping” the name of the northern Greek province, in Thessaloniki in 2008

Thousands of Greeks protest against the former Yugoslav republic “usurping” the name of the northern Greek province, in Thessaloniki in 2008

Gounaris cites four wars in which Greece fought Bulgaria for Macedonian heritage, including the Macedonian Struggle, the Second Balkan War, the Great War and the Second World War.

“By the 1950s, although the problem was no longer Bulgaria, Macedonia had become the symbol, the cornerstone of Greek integrity and pride,” Gounaris explains. “Actually, these four wars fought in Macedonia were the only modern-time wars that the Greeks won, so they won't back down.”

Today, the name “Macedonia” is used extensively in northern Greece. The museum's foundation has compiled a list of hundreds of entities - businesses ranging from bread makers to furniture manufacturers to tavernas, as well as sports teams and other associations - that use Macedonia in their names or figures of Alexander, Phillip or the Macedonian Star in their trademarks.

Conversely, to assert the differences, the Macedonian media would translate every word said in Bulgarian, even those every Macedonian would understand. “History is what makes Greece. It is the main element of Greek nationhood and that won't change,” Gounaris asserts.

And it's not just Greece. Gounaris doesn't foresee the people of the young nation giving in either. “No nation - either Greek or Slav Macedonian - is going to change its name under pressure,” Gounaris points out.

In recent months, both the EU and the United States have stepped up their efforts to convince Athens and Skopje to compromise on the name issue. But they are both adamant. “We are not a country that takes orders from anyone,” Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis was recently quoted as saying.


According to Todor Chepreganov, director of the Institute of National History at the University of Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, the people of the Republic of Macedonian draw the line at changing their name. “If we have to change our name,” he says, “it is something that is going to erase our identity.”

The Greeks get furious over maps like this

The Greeks get furious over maps like this

“Not even a compromise,” Chepreganov indicates. “The young nation has already changed its constitution to assure Greece there are no territorial claims on the Macedonian region in Greece and redesigned its flag to remove the Vergina Star after protests from Greece,” he adds.

“It's not a compromise - you need two sides to make a compromise. What has Greece done to compromise?” Chepreganov asks. “We as Macedonians have no problem with our name.”

Chepreganov confirms that while the people of the state of Macedonia have diverse backgrounds, they identify with Macedonia, calling it “the collective memory of the people”. He points out that in 1944, Macedonians fought in the Second World War, resulting in the formation of the Federal Macedonian State within the frame of Yugoslavia and at that time there was no push by Greece for a name change.

He added that while some point out that many Macedonians are of Bulgarian decent and speak a dialect of the Bulgarian language, the people no longer identify with Bulgaria. For example, when the Republic of Macedonia was formed in 1991, few people - he estimated 1,000 - opted for Bulgarian nationality instead. “If they do not feel they are Macedonian, why didn't they change nationality?”

Instead, the people now identify themselves as Macedonians. “We have succeeded in existing as a state,” Chepreganov says. “We don't care what they call us - we have our constitutional name.”


Nikolay Marin, who holds a doctorate in international law and international relations, and teaches Public International Law at Southwestern University Neofit Rilski, in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, says that despite the strong historical link which Bulgaria has to Greece and Macedonia, Bulgaria is not and should not be a part of this dispute. Bulgaria's concern is stability in the Balkans.

Professor Nikolay Marin

Professor Nikolay Marin

“It is true that Bulgaria has recognised the independence of the newly created state under the name of Macedonia. This was not an easy political decision,” Marin asserts. “The decision was made in the hope of initiating stability in The war-torn former Yugoslavia. That said, Greece's ‘threat' to veto the new Macedonia's entrance into the EU should not be qualified as a threat, because among the criteria for applying for membership to the EU is that the state have no pending disputes with adjacent countries. This means Skopje should settle the name issue, in the best long-term interest of its people,” he explains.

“It is high time for the dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic to be solved,” Marin concludes. “Skopje should adopt a more flexible policy which should be a reflection of its citizens' and its own interests.”

Most Macedonians immigrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century declared themselves ethnic Bulgarian

Most Macedonians immigrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century declared themselves ethnic Bulgarian

Where Does Bulgaria Stand?

Bulgaria was the first country to recognise the independence of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1991. However, Bulgaria's official position is that Macedonia's history and ethnicity are in fact Bulgarian. Significantly, Bulgaria insists that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian and that the Macedonians are ethnic Bulgarians. The result is somewhat perplexing: state owned media are banned from translating what anyone says in Macedonian, leaving the vernacular unchanged. The result? Many Bulgarians, especially those in the eastern regions, are unable to understand.

And Now for the Salad...

Salade Macédoine

Interestingly, no one can agree about the salad either. In France, Salade Macédoine is a vegetable salad. In Italy, a Macedonia is a fruit salad. In Greece, Makedoniki salata contains aubergines... It isn't difficult to see why in cuisine the term “macédoine” has come to mean exactly what it means in diplomatic history: a complicated (and inseparable) mixture.


Issue 20 Western Balkans Bulgaian history

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